In a rivalry matchup between two undefeated powerhouses of North American rugby, a good match is expected, but Saturday’s meeting between Cal and the University of British Columbia went above and beyond to produce an absolutely unforgettable one. In the last drama-soaked minutes of the match, Cal had opportunity after opportunity to score what would have been a game-tying try in front of a breathless crowd, but UBC held strong on the try-line to preserve a 20-15 win in the first leg of the “World Cup” series.
Cal looked ready to redeem itself after losing at home to UBC in 2015, going into halftime with a 9-3 lead. The closest either side came to a try in the first half was a breakaway by Cal senior Harry Adolphus that ended with a brutal hit two yards out from a try, but Cal couldn’t capitalize with a score after losing a scrum. The Thunderbirds had a noticeable size advantage on the edges, but Cal was still able to hold them to only one penalty kick in the first half by dialing up the defense when pushed deep into their own territory.
Things changed quickly in the second half. The Thunderbirds struck quickly, scoring two tries in the first 15 minutes and converting both kicks to take a lead they would never give back. UBC fullback Andrew Coe scored both tries on brilliant runs by breaking tackles and being unselfish with the ball.
Down 17-15 with about 15 minutes remaining, Adolphus was given a penalty kick from the midline that would have given the Bears a one point lead. Although Adolphus had scored all of the Bears’ points on his five penalty kicks, this one was not meant to be. The kick was powerful enough, and the crowd jumped to its feet thinking it was good, but it slanted wide right by a matter of inches.
“It felt good, and I struck the ball well,” Adolphus said. “I just got it a little bit too hard, and it went right. That’s just the sort of pressure that comes with being a kicker.”
With four minutes remaining, and playing a man down, the Thunderbirds made an easy kick after a high tackle penalty to take the decisive 20-15 lead. A clutch one-handed catch by junior Conner Sweet, who was subbed in during the second half, on an inbounds gave the Bears a chance near the tryline with two minutes remaining. The Bears spent the entirety of those last minutes trying to simply bash the ball in with their biggest players, but UBC’s physical edge shined brightly in denying Cal its chance for last minute glory.
“It was the wrong tactic,” Cal head coach Jack Clark said. “We didn’t have any on field leadership, we needed to get the ball out of that mess, and give somebody (on the outside) the chance to use their feet. We went toe to toe with them, but we couldn’t deliver in big moments. I want to give UBC credit, but a lot of our errors were unforced.”
After this home loss, their second in the past two “Cups,” the Bears now need to win by six points in their March rematch on UBC’s home pitch if they hope to win the cup back.
“We came in as the underdog, and we showed our caliber as a team,” Adolphus said. “We’ll go into Vancouver thinking positive.”
Andrew Wild covers rugby. Contact him at [email protected].
A previous version of this article incorrectly referred to the University of British Columbia’s rugby team as the Thundercats. In fact, they are the Thunderbirds.